Iran, the hottest destination of the decade, is a country filled with a very old history, mind-blowing architecture and amazing people.
The country is, however, extremely big, has been inhabited for millennia and was ruled by one of the most powerful empires that ever existed in human history.
As a consequence, Iran is, today, an extremely complex society home to an infinite number of historical sites, many of which are not open to the public yet.
And there is even more.
With some striking mountain ranges, the Persian Gulf islands, unique deserts and countless towns and cities with different kinds of people and culture, Iran is a country which you can’t finish, not in a lifetime at least.
However, whether you come here for a week or a month, getting a glimpse of the great power of the Persian empire or getting to know some locals over a cup of local chai is totally possible.
After visiting the country twice for more than months, I have compiled this 1 to 4-week itinerary for independent travel to Iran that contains my favorite places in the country.
Independent travel in Iran: 1 to 4-week itinerary
It took me almost two months to visit all the places I mention, spending 4 to 5 days on each one, which is a lot of days. However, if you plan well-ahead and stay 2 or 3 days in each one, you could perfectly squeeze my Iran itinerary in a month.
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Here you will find:
How to travel independently around Iran by public transportation
Iran is an extremely easy country to move around, as it has a very well-connected bus network and plenty of domestic flights. Before, it was a bit difficult to buy tickets, as most locals sites wouldn’t accept foreign credit cards. However, things have changed now and the guys from 1stQuest have launched a website where you can book both bus tickets and flights online.
Travel safe in Iran
You should know that, because of the sanctions imposed by the USA, most travel insurance providers such as World Nomads don’t cover travel in Iran.
After doing some research, I found that IATI Insurance is one of the very few companies that offers completely valid travel policies for Iran. They have a wide range of different plans for every kind of traveler and budget, besides offering good coverage at a very competitive price.
Moreover, the readers of Against the Compass can get an exclusive 5% discount (you will see the discount after calculating your quote).
Independent travel in Iran – 1-week Iran itinerary
Iran is a massive piece of land so, if you only have one week, after Tehran, the closest cities are Kashan and Esfahan.
Map of the one-week Iran travel itinerary
Day 1 – Tehran
The capital of Iran is a real chaotic metropolis, where you can find an extremely mixed society, both the traditional, conservative Iran and the most hipster people in the country. From ancient bazaars to 21st-century malls, Tehran is a very surprising city that could you keep busy for several weeks. This mixed society reminded me a lot to Beirut.
If you are lucky and the sky is clear, you must go to Tabi’at Bridge, the place from where you get the best views of the Tehran skyline. Also don’t forget to check out the Grand Bazaar of Tehran, a real maze of bustling streets and carpet shops, and Golestan Palace, located in the middle of the city jungle but where you find beautiful gardens and the classic, colorful Persian tiles Iran is famous for.
Moreover, if you are into politics, don’t forget to check out what used to be the actual USA Embassy before the 1979 revolution, as today it is a museum with plenty of anti-American propaganda.
Last, if you wanna take a break from all the chaos, go to Darband, located at the bottom of Mount Tochal and almost reachable by metro. With plenty of waterfalls and small day-treks, this was my favorite spot in the city.
For more information, read: Things to do in Tehran in 2 days
Where to stay in Tehran
Budget Hostel – Heritage Hostel – Plenty of common areas, a beautiful garden with a Persian pool, a barbecue place, and very modern facilities. I honestly think that this is the best hostel in the country and the best choice for independent travelers in Iran.
Mid-range – HodHod Budget – This company has a few hotel apartments across downtown. They have great reviews, so this would be a nice option for mid-range travelers.
Getting out of Tehran
Since this is the capital, you can come and go by public transportation from anywhere in the country.
Tip – In order to save time, some independent travelers book a one-way ticket to either Shiraz, Yazd or Esfahan and visit all the cities on their way back.
Remember that you can buy your bus & flight tickets through 1stQuest website
Day 3, 4 – Kashan
Kashan isn’t the greatest of all the Persian cities but its privileged location makes it very convenient for any Iran itinerary.
This also means that tour groups abound but this shouldn’t put you off because I can’t deny that it is actually pretty and, if you don’t have the time to visit Yazd, Kashan also has the famous wind towers and windy mud-brick alleys.
Besides the classic bazaar, where you can check out the textiles Kashan is popular for, don’t forget to visit Khan Amin al-Dowleh Timche, a mosque with one of the craziest dome ceilings; the traditional Persian Fin Gardens and the unique Agha Bozorg, a big mosque whose wall colors are confused with the houses from the old city.
Tip – If you want a more off the beaten track option, Qom is a better alternative to Kashan. I personally didn’t go there but it is a very holy city with some amazing shrines and the location is also very convenient the 1-week Iran itinerary.
Where to stay in Kashan
Budget Hostel – Sana Historical Hostel – With both private rooms and dorms and located right in the old town, Sana is the most popular choice for independent travelers.
Boutique Hotel – Darbe Bagh Residence – A few hundred-years-old house which has been beautifully restored into a traditional boutique hotel.
How to get to Kashan from Tehran
It’s very easy. Buses run regularly and it is only a 3-hour journey. You can also go by train but it takes 1 or 2 additional hours.
Day 5, 6 – Esfahan
Tip – If you have more than a week, consider staying in Esfahan for at least 3 or 4 days.
Esfahan is Iran’s most amazing city and its mosques are one of the main reasons independent travelers come to Iran.
With hundreds of years of history, Esfahan has always been home to a very important community of intellectuals and scholars and, historically, its importance was often compared to Athens or Rome.
Today, according to Iranian standards, this is a pretty modern city, very clean, composed of perfectly tree-lined streets, which makes it very pleasant to walk around.
The first place you need to go is Imam Square, where you find both the Shah Mosque and Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque, whose ceilings and domes will leave you breathless. Imam Square is also a place where locals hang out, especially during late afternoon and evening, so I recommend you not to rush and stay there for a while.
During the day, I suggest you stroll down the old bazaar, one of the nicest in the country, with plenty of spices and the worldwide famous creepy mannequins.
In the evening, a good idea is to head to the river to see the different historical bridges, the most famous being Si-o-seh Pol. However, the last time I was there in April 2018, the river was completely dry, which made me very sad.
Oh! By the way, Esfahan is also famous for some sweets called gaz, which are filled with walnuts and have a gummy texture. Also, don’t forget to look for the local biryani (which is quite different from Indian and Pakistani) and saffron ice-cream.
Where to stay in Esfahan
Budget Hostel – Ragrud Hostel – A brand-new hostel with very modern facilities, awesome staff and the best reviews ever. I am sure this place will, very soon, become very popular in Esfahan.
Mid-range – Sean Guest House – I stayed here. Basically, it is a very modern apartment with 3 rooms. However, the owner is very disorganized and he was not in the apartment on my arrival, so had to wait for more than one hour outside.
How to get to Esfahan from Kashan
There are several buses all day long and it is just a 3-hour trip.
Independent travel to Iran – 2-week Iran itinerary
Most people would have two weeks for traveling independently in Iran.
If you want to save time, consider flying from Tehran to Shiraz, as you will save a 1,000-kilometer journey.
Remember that you can book your flights through 1stQuest
Map of the two-week Iran backpacking itinerary
Day 8, 9 – Yazd
With its perfectly-shaped old city, cute mosques, souvenir shops and plenty of decent coffee places, Yazd is, by far, the most touristic city in Iran. It reminded me a lot of Khiva in Uzbekistan.
With tens of tour groups overrunning the magnificent narrow alleys of the old town, to be very honest, I am not the biggest fan of Yazd but, truth be said, it is a very beautiful city and, perhaps, the most photogenic in the country.
Moreover, I also liked Yazd because it is a nice place to chill out. After hectic travels and hard-backpacking, it is always nice to finally be in a place where you are just one more tourist, find good accommodation, coffee and loads of food choices.
So yeah, I actually enjoyed Yazd and it should be a must on any Iran itinerary.
This used to be a Silk Road trading town, so there is a lot of heritage dating from that period. The coolest thing to do in Yazd is get lost in the old city, while you check the wind-towers and stumble across the different sites and mosques, the most remarkable being Masjed e-Jameh, a mosque from the 15th century and one of the tallest in Iran, with 48-meter minarets.
At sunset, you must go to a rooftop to enjoy the views. There are many hotels and cafés that allow you to do that. Some places will charge you 1€, while in others you just need to order something. I can’t recommend anyone in particular because all of them have different view perspectives but Orient Hotel is a popular spot.
Moreover, just outside of the old city, you find the Amir Chakhmaq complex, the famous three-storey facade building and the main landmark in the city.
Also, you should know that Yazd has the second largest population of Zoroastrians, a religion that dates back at least 4,000 years and was the official religion in the pre-Islamic Persian Empire. Here, they have one of their holiest sites, the Fire Temple, which has a flame which they claim hasn’t stopped burning since the 5th century.
Where to stay in Yazd
Budget Hostel – Bagdir Hostel – The only real backpacker hostel in town, this traditionally decorated hostel is the best option for budget travelers.
Mid-range Hotel – Silk Road – For travelers with a higher budget, the Silk Road Hotel is located in the old city, has very decent rooms and a very popular restaurant among foreigners. The owner is also a nice guy.
How to get to Yazd from Esfahan
Esfahan to Yazd is a good 4 to 5-hour ride and buses run frequently.
Day 10, 11, 12 – The desert of the Kaluts
In Kerman province, quite far away from everything, you find the Kaluts, the most silent and remote desert I have ever been to.
Here, NASA registered the highest temperature ever found on the Earth’s surface (71ºC) so, if possible, try not to come in summer. Nevertheless, the temperature cools down exponentially in the evening, so you should be fine for the sunset.
Life is not possible in the Kaluts, not even microorganisms, but its beauty and sunsets are out of this world, similar to the Mars landscape so, if you are fancying some desert adventure, this is the place to go.
If you have time, you can also visit Kerman city, as well as Shazdeh Garden and Shah Nematollah Vali Shrine. These sites are quite off the beaten track and the people in Kerman are always happy to meet foreigners.
The closest settlement to the Kaluts is an oasis town named Shahdad, famous for its date plantations, handicrafts made of palm trees, lovely traditional guesthouses and desert fortresses.
For more information, read my guide: A trip to the desert of the Kaluts
Where to stay in the Kaluts
You can camp if you go on a pre-arranged tour but, if not, you can stay at the nearest village called Shahdad. There is a very budget guest house called Ab Anbar and a fancier one named Nebka. Both are nice.
How to get to the Kaluts from Yazd
If you are traveling independently in Iran, first, you need to go to Kerman city, which is around 400km from Yazd. It is quite a journey, so I recommend you take an overnight bus (or train).
Shahdad is 100km from Kerman and a taxi would roughly cost 850,000IR. For going to the Kaluts, you need to arrange a 4WD and a guide, which you can easily find through your guest house in Shahdad.
Remember to check my Kaluts desert guide for further details and prices.
Day 13, 14 – Shiraz
I love Shiraz.
Actually, I stayed here for 10 days, mainly because I was doing a project for a company but I enjoyed my time very much.
For some reason which I don’t know, the people from Shiraz are very open-minded, more than other cities in Iran. Actually, I drank more alcohol here than anywhere else in the country. One day, one guy invited me to his house at 9:30am in the morning and gave me some shots of arak. It was a nice feeling to wander around Shiraz a bit tipsy after that.
There are also a lot of things to do in Shiraz, like visiting Vakil mosque, Nasir al-Molk, the famous mosque with the famous color effect from the sun rays; the ancient Vakil Bazaar, the less visited, but outstanding, Shrine of Shah-e Cheragh; Hazfez Tomb and, of course, the ancient Persepolis, the ruins of what used to be the center of one of the greatest empires that ever existed.
For more information, read my guide: Things to do in Shiraz
Day trips from Shiraz
I did some 1-2-day trips from Shiraz, including visiting the Qashqai Nomads, the ruins of the Sassanid Empire, trekking in the Zagros Mountains and a quick trip to the Pink Lake. To visit these places, you will have to add 1 or 2 additional days for each one to your original Iran itinerary.
Where to stay in Shiraz
Backpacker Hostel – Taha Hostel – A real backpacker hostel, very well-located and great traveling atmosphere. Highly recommended!
Budget Guest House – Grandma B&B – If you prefer a family-run place and a traditional atmosphere, this is a good budget alternative to Taha Hostel.
Boutique Hotel – Niayesh – The busiest hotel in town, where everybody stays, from backpackers to wealthy couples and tour groups. Breakfast is included and it has several outdoor areas where you can rest and get some food.
How to get to Shiraz from Kerman
It’s a 7 or 8-hour trip, so I strongly recommend taking a night bus.
Getting out of Shiraz
You can take a direct bus to Tehran, no problem, but if you want to save time, consider flying.
Independent travel to Iran – 3-week Iran itinerary
If you have an extra week for independent travel in, consider getting off the beaten track, so I suggest you visit Golestan province and Mashhad. This is just my personal opinion but the truth is that I really loved these places. Let me tell you why.
Map of the three-week travel itinerary to Iran
Day 15, 16 – Mashhad
There are two reasons to visit Mashhad:
One is to visit the Imam Reza Shrine and the other is to stay at Vali’s.
As you may know, Mashhad is the holiest place in Iran and one of the most important cities for Shia Muslims in the world. The reason is that the shrine is where Imam Reza rests, the 8th Imam of Twelver Shiïtes.
The shrine is the largest religious complex in the world and, when you step in, it is easy to understand why. It is f*** huge and you will lose count of all the courtyards and different mosques.
The only downside is that you can’t take in a professional camera but only your phone. I didn’t know that and had to leave my camera and tripod at the entrance and didn’t have battery on my phone, so no pictures for me. Moreover, if they see you are a foreigner, they will assign you a guide, which kind of sucked as well, because mine didn’t explain anything to me but just made me follow him. You can, however, sneak in easily.
As the top pilgrimage site in the country, Mashhad is a wealthy city with a great tourism infrastructure, as it receives loads of pilgrims from Lebanon and Iraq, two countries with large Shia populations. There is a modern metro line and plenty of different food options, including Lebanese restaurants.
The second reason to come is to stay at Vali’s. Vali has a family homestay that, for years, has hosted plenty of international travelers, especially overlanders going (or coming) from Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
I stayed 4 days at his house as the only guest and we celebrated the Iranian New Year, ate great homemade food and they just took very good care of me. Besides, he has plenty of stories to tell, is very talkative and can you take outside of the city for day trips.
Visit Vali’s website for more details.
Go to Kang on a day trip
I recommend you go to Kang, a traditional stepped village 50km from Mashhad. It’s very beautiful to see and there are some small trekking opportunities around the area.
To go there, take the Metro Line 1 to Vakilabad and then a bus or shared taxi. Additionally, a trip by taxi from the city center with 1-hour visit costs 600,000IR.
How to get to Mashhad
Being the most visited city in the country, you can get here on a direct bus or train from anywhere in Iran, including Shiraz, if you are following the suggested itinerary. The only downside is that Mashhad is really far away, no matter where you are, so if don’t have much time, consider flying in. I personally went by train from Bandar Abbas and it was a 23-hour journey.
Day 17, 18 – Gonvad e-Kavus
Gonvad e-Kavus is the main city in Golestan province, one of the least visited provinces in Iran but, controversially, the most beautiful.
I bet that you didn’t know that this province is home to the largest population of Turkmens, the actual people from Turkmenistan. This means that, in Golestan, there is a clear Central Asian culture, visible in their food, nomadic life and Mongolian features.
In Gonvad-e Kavus you find a UNESCO World Heritage site (a 72-meter tower), handicraft shops selling traditional Turkmen products and is the gateway to some of the most striking scenery in the whole country.
Golestan is the ultimate destination for independent travel to Iran.
For more information, read my travel guide to Golestan
Where to stay in Gonvad e-Kavus
There are very few options and your best bet will be staying in Hotel Ajam or Couchsurfing.
How to get to Gonvad e-Kavus from Mashhad
You should take a night bus. It’s an 8-hour journey.
Day 19, 20 – Khalid Nabi
Also located in Golestan, Khalid Nabi is the most stunning site I visited in my Iran itinerary, and not for the site itself but because it is located in the most epic spot ever.
Basically, Khalid Nabi is a cemetery where a pre-Islamic prophet and his followers are buried. The prophet is buried inside a cute building, whereas all his followers are found under some penis-shaped rocks.
The bigger the penis is, the older the man when he died. If you see a cross-shaped rock, it means that the person buried is a woman.
The archaeological is not the only reason to come but the landscape is absolutely gorgeous and the area is filled with small Turkmen villages and nomadic yurt camps.
Where to stay in Khalid Nabi
If you want to experience the real Turkmen and Central Asian culture, I recommend you stay in Tamer-e Qarah Quzi, a village 35km before from Khalid Nabi. Here, there is a homestay run by Naim and his family, a Turkmen family that will bless you with their hospitality. Besides, Naim can also take you for some trekking and visit nomadic camps. Highly recommended!
How to get to Khalid Nabi and Tamer-e Qarah Quzi
To go to Tamer, you have to get a local shared taxi to Kalaleh (40,000IR) and, from there, a second one to Tamer (40,000IR). Khalid Nabi is just 35km away from Tamer but the road is really bumpy so it takes around 1.5h. A round-trip by taxi costs 400,000IR. I hitchhiked and was picked up by some Iranians from Tehran who were drinking vodka in the car. It was pretty cool.
Remember that, for more information, read my guide to Golestan province
Iran independent travel – 1-month Iran itinerary
If you have a full month, consider adding the Persian Gulf Island and the north-west to your Iran itinerary.
Map of the 30-day travel itinerary to Iran
Qeshm Island – 3 extra days from Shiraz
Note – You should come here after Shiraz.
If you wanna taste the Persian Gulf culture, I suggest you add Qeshm Island to your Iran itinerary.
The Persian Gulf culture is the traditional culture from Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and, of course, south Iran. This culture, however, is fasting disappearing in the Arab countries but, fortunately, not in Qeshm.
The inhabitants of Qeshm are Sunni Wahabis, the most conservative branch of Islam. The most surprising thing is the way local women dress, in such colorful abayas and wearing some strange masks. It may seem a bit intimidating but they are actually quite laid-back and you can take photos of them, no problem.
Qeshm is also famous for its geology, consisting of strange rock formations. To see this, go at sunset to Star Valley. I also suggest you visit the Shib Deraz and the Sea Turtle Breeding Area, Hengam Island, Laft and, of course, try the local food, which consists of spiced seafood.
You can also take a ferry to Hormuz Island, which leaves every day at 9am and 2pm. I personally didn’t go but I have been told that it is a beautiful island.
The only downside of Qeshm Island is that, for people who travel independently in Iran, the public transportation options are scarce.
For more information, read my travel guide to Qeshm Island
Where to stay in Qeshm Island
I recommend you pick one place and do day trips from there. I pitched my tent in Shib Deraz beach but there is also a guest house.
How to get to Qeshm Island from Shiraz
From Shiraz, you need to take a bus to Bandar Abbas (8 hours, 500km).
Once in Bandar Abbas, go to the ferry terminal. Boats leave every half an hour (150,000IR).
Masuleh – 3 extra days from Tehran
Masuleh is the most famous stepped mountain village in Iran.
However, being the most famous means that it gets a mix of different opinions and feelings.
The most voracious travelers will tell you not to go because it gets swamped with local tourists, souvenir shops, and pricey restaurants, whereas the rest will tell you that it is a lovely village and you must go.
In my opinion, both are kind of wrong. On the one hand, it is true that Masuleh gets all the attention from all the travel guides and this is because it is actually very cute and has a developed tourist infrastructure. On the other hand, despite being very touristic, most tourists just remain in the village, without knowing that Masuleh is surrounded by some of the most awesome mountains in the country, composed of lush, green plains and remote shepherd huts, which offer amazing trekking opportunities.
I went trekking myself and didn’t bump into absolutely anyone. So yeah, I think that you should definitely come.
For more information, read my travel guide to Masuleh
Where to stay in Masuleh
I stayed in a random homestay and you can do the same because there are many. If you are looking for comfort, Aram Hotel seems like a popular mid-range option.
How to get to Masuleh from Tehran
You need to first go to Fuman, which takes 4 hours from Tehran. Masuleh is 34km from Fuman and private taxis cost 300,000-400,000IR. Local shared taxis leave from a station 3km from the main bus station and they cost 100,000-150,000IR.
Additionally, if you don’t find buses to Fuman, you can also go to Rasht, which is a bigger city very close to Fuman.
Tabriz – 3 extra days from Masuleh
The city where the famous Persian carpets come from and where you find the largest covered bazaar in the world, Tabriz is a real off the beaten track city and, practically, the only visitors are overlanders coming from the Caucasus countries.
The bazaar has been listed as a UNESCO Heritage site so, if you are into bazaars, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Tabriz also has some very friendly people who haven’t been spoiled by the mass tourism yet, so people are quite a highlight, as well. Don’t forget to visit the Blue Mosque, even though due to an earthquake, it still undergoing a long restoration process.
I also suggest you go to Kandovan, often called the little Cappadoccia, a very peculiar cave city easily reachable from Tabriz. For this, you should first take a bus to Osku, which shouldn’t cost more than 40,000IR. Then, a taxi to Kandovan would cost 200,000IR roughly.
Where to stay in Tabriz
Budget Hotel – Ramsar Guest House – Cheap accommodation for backpackers.
Mid-range Hotel – Tabriz International Hotel – Nothing fancy but good quality service according to its price range.
How to get to Tabriz from Masuleh or Tehran
If you are in Masuleh, you should go to the city of Rasht, where you may find direct buses.
If you are in Tehran, take an overnight bus because it is a very long way. They leave daily.
More resources for independent travel in Iran
Visa for Iran – Most nationalities will get a visa on arrival but, if you enter overland or don’t want to wait at the airport for hours, you should get the authorization code in advance. The guys from 1stQuest can provide you with this and it only costs 29€. Click here to get your authorization code.
Travel Insurance – Remember that IATI Insurance is one of the very few that covers Iran and, for being a reader of my blog, you will get a 5% discount. Buy through this link to get your 5% discount.
Internet in Iran – Just a reminder that you need to a VPN to access all blocked websites. Read this article to know how to find the right VPN for Iran.
More articles about Iran – Here you can see all my articles and guides to Iran.